Israel as a Measure of Jewish Moral Fiber

Rising antisemitism around the world makes the State of Israel essential and the need for justice and peace with Palestinian Arabs also essential. Ultimately, Israel is a measure of Jewish moral fiber, a demand that “justice prevails over power, that awareness of God penetrates human understanding.”

Growing up in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s as the daughter of a refugee from Hitler’s Europe, the State of Israel was nothing less than a miracle, a gift from God. I attended an Orthodox day school filled with children of survivors bearing the names of grandparents who had been murdered. Death was present, but the State of Israel was the balm for our trauma. We prayed for its strength, sang its songs, and felt that while we were physically in New York, our souls were in Israel.

My first trip to Israel was at the age of five, with my parents, and I was overwhelmed with the joy and mystery of walking the same paths in Jerusalem as King David. I was thrilled with the feeling that the Bible was alive, right there with us. Shabbat in Jerusalem was the most beautiful experience I had as a child. My only disappointment growing up was that my parents had not raised me there. I longed to be a halutz on a kibbutz, a member of Bnei Akiva, and part of the community in Rehavia of my parents’ friends, also refugees from Europe, but who were building a Jewish country.

Back home in New York, few periods of my childhood were as frightening as the tense weeks in the spring of 1967 that preceded the Six-Day War. The increasingly hostile tone of political rhetoric in the Middle East was combined with threatening troop movements, which reached an emotional peak with the withdrawal of UN peace-keeping troops, stationed in Egypt. In my parents’ home the tension was severe and incessant. My father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, had long been involved in political issues, including the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War protests, the Free Soviet Jewry movement, and the Second Vatican Council, and I was used to his frequent meetings, constant phone calls, press interviews, and the nervous, rapt attention he gave to the evening news. But these months were even more intense: there was the sort of emotional atmosphere of a waiting room in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, a sense that Israel’s life was hanging in the balance, and with it the life and death of all Jews. American Jews were offering everything to keep Israel alive; volunteering at an Israel advocacy organization, I learned about donations to Israel from American Jews of their entire life savings, of their homes and businesses.

The end of the war, in June 1967, brought emotional relief from the terror. Joy mixed with tears over the disaster that might have been. We had felt so vulnerable, and the war now seemed a miracle. With the 1973 war, we were plunged once again into terror as Palestinian groups murdered Jews in Israel and around the world while the world seemed to turn against us.

Then came my student years at Hebrew University in the 1970s and 1980s, where I experienced the gender inequity of the country, with professors engaging the male students and patronizing the female students. Suggestions women raised for gender analyses of texts were mocked and dismissed. Israelis told me that just as men serve in the army, women’s wombs belong to the state and the purpose of my life was to produce as many Jewish babies as possible. Women’s Studies and feminist theory, all but unknown at that time, were ridiculed by professors. The rigidity of the academic approaches was also disturbing; an old-fashioned philology dominated and efforts at new interpretations and theoretical modalities were not welcomed. During the year after my father died, Israel was the only place where I could not find a daily minyan that would allow me, as a woman, to say Kaddish.

Thankfully, much of that has changed. The sexism is far from over, but there are thriving and exciting Women’s Studies programs at Israeli universities, wonderful institutes for women to study Talmud, and liberal, egalitarian synagogues are flourishing, albeit not all with a daily minyan.

In those days, Israel brought us together; Israel was our freedom land and Zionism was our version of the American Civil Rights movement. Yet in recent decades, American Jews supporting Israeli political parties such as Meretz or Labor are reviled by supporters of Likud and called enemies of the Jewish people. Within Israel, political polarization has overtaken secular-religious tensions and we are warned that Israel may be on the verge of civil war. We started with socialist aspirations, now, we are in bed with racists; we started as victims of antisemitism and today too many base their Zionism on hatred of Arabs and leftist Jews, while antisemites loathe Israel as a personification of all they hate about Jews.

A Jewish state or a state for the Jews? For my parents’ generation and in my childhood in New York, Israel was a miracle. Yet that miracle was not statehood and political sovereignty, and certainly not a negation of diaspora and rejection of religion; rather, Israel meant not only protection from antisemitic murderers, but the fulfillment of a Jewish dream of living as a religious Jew in the land of Israel. What I learned from my father is that the land itself is not holy, not to be worshiped, and not to die for; rather, the land is the site for holiness to be created.

God is not dwelling any more in Israel than anywhere else, he said, because God is not reached through the physicality of space. God is rather met in moments of faith, in holy time. Jerusalem is not sacred as land; my father repudiated the idolatry of the land expressed by some contemporary Jews. He stated quite clearly: “We do not worship the soil.” Instead, my father saw Israel deeply entwined with Jewish history and faith, and thereby “endowed with the power to inspire” moments in which God’s presence is palpable to us, “to invoke in us the ability to be present” to God’s presence.

Yes, Israel is part of an effort to overcome galut (exile), but my father worried that the state had lost its direction: galut is not overcome with politics and sovereignty. Galut, he wrote, “is a spiritual condition, affecting all levels of life. There is galut wherever Judaism is judged by the standards of the marketplace and whenever the sense of the holy is replaced by spiritual obtuseness.” Some Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are galut, he wrote, celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut with guns and tanks is galut, and refusing to speak out against racism is galut: “It is not only that we are in galut, galut is in us.” The Tosafists, medieval commentators on the Talmud, warned that we cannot extricate ourselves from galut simply by moving to Israel. For them, exile is a divine decree whether one lives in the land of Israel or not; the question is not where to live, but how to live. My father echoed that teaching.

God, too, is in galut, with the exile of the Shekhinah (divine feminine presence) from Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu (divine masculine). The exile within God is powerful in Jewish thought and may explain why the rabbis refused to end the continued, intractable condition of the agunah, chained to a husband who refuses to grant her a divorce. The agunah lives in the deepest form of galut, mandated by Halacha and controlled by men who do not permit women to divorce men. Although Halacha, Jewish law, has managed to create a variety of legal fictions, such as eruv, and edicts, such as the prohibition against polygamy, and cope with changing circumstances, such as the Shoah and Zionism, the laws of divorce create the agunah, the ultimate symbol of galut. Zionist thinkers said they were redeeming Jewish men from the emasculating nature of exile, yet the agunah remains intact, demonstrating that neither return to the land nor establishment of a state overcomes the existential galut for women of Judaism’s male domination. If Israel offers us the possibility of removing the galut from within ourselves, including our rabbis, then we might begin with a state that liberates agunot from their chains.

When the State of Israel first came into being, the secular Zionist leadership granted Orthodox rabbis exclusive control over areas of personal status, including marriage, divorce, and conversion. Non-Orthodox rabbis were not recognized by the state, which assumed, following Zionist ideology, that devout piety would soon perish. Without the possibility of liberal modes of religious practice in a religiously pluralistic society, the choices were either secularism or Orthodoxy. Secular contempt for religion and Orthodox withdrawal from army service contributed to polarization. Within the religious community, reactionary forces developed that became intransigent, nationalist, and even racist, and the contempt of adamantly secular Israelis for religious Jews at times bordered on classic antisemitism. With little dialogue between the two groups, they created two quite distinct societies that often express rage and contempt toward each other.

Among the secular Israelis, many have little knowledge nor interest in Jewish religious practice. Some have only a vague sense of Jewish identity, as if the Zionist claim of overcoming the diaspora Jew has succeeded only too well, and they chafe under the legal restrictions of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

At the same time, growing numbers of racial, nationalist religious Israelis, some of whom made Aliyah from the United States, have renounced the state in favor of the land and feel no obligation to support the collective citizenry. Meir Kahane, once condemned and banned, has been resurrected in some of today’s major Israeli politicians. Basic structures of government and society, such as the Supreme Court, have come under attack by religious nationalists, as democracy is increasingly viewed as a danger to Jewish survival.

In the eyes of both secular and religious Israelis, Palestinian lives are too often seen as worth less than the lives of Jews. How is it possible that after Baruch Goldstein murdered Muslims at prayer in a mosque, Hebron was re-opened to Jewish settlers, and he is viewed as a martyr? Is there no shame in a country that tolerates settlers throwing garbage on an open-air market, simply because it is the shopping locale of Palestinians? Engulfed by rage, acts of violence and revenge by Arabs and Jews against one another are becoming increasingly commonplace as are repudiations of co-existence and peace. Racism is antithetical to religion. As my father forcefully wrote, “Racism is satanism, unmitigated evil…. You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.” Where are the voices of rabbis and imams condemning violence?

Democracy and piety are not adversaries. The laws of a land and a religion must apply equally to all, regardless of class, religion, gender, or ethnicity. Aspects of Halacha have changed over time and will continue to change. Yet too many major Israeli politicians today embrace political leaders around the world who undermine democracy and support racism. Such alliances are for the sake of expanding trade, selling weapons, and making the rich richer. Is Israel to go down in history as the country willing to sell arms to any buyer, regardless of how those weapons will be used? The alliance forged by the Abraham Accords places Israel in an ugly political neighborhood and further erodes support for Zionism from liberals.

To live with the consciousness of galut is to live humbly at a crossroads: either to turn inward and nurture one’s sorrows or to turn outward and recognize that our sorrows are echoed by people all around us. Too often the zeal to overcome our exile becomes an excuse for failing to participate in society’s political troubles, turning inward, with concern only for Jewish issues, abandoning the prophetic position that derives its loyalties not from either side of a conflict, but from transcendent principles. Insularity of Jews from the wider society, concern only with what directly affects Jews and rejection of involvement in the needs of fellow citizens: that is truly exile.

Galut is less a political condition – after all, Jews were not exiled by the Romans from the land of Israel – than an existential state, cultivated as such by centuries of Jewish thought. Galut is isolating, melancholic, often paralyzing in its sense of homelessness, and it is not overcome simply by becoming an Israeli citizen. At times, the melancholy of the soul can become self-destructive, enacted with physical aggression, vengeance, and rage. Remaining in a state of galut can be despairing and stagnant. “Who am I without exile,” asks the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in the title of a poem, echoing the Hasidic understanding of exile as existential.

In Babylonian exile, “we lay down and wept.” Today, too, my father wrote, “Auschwitz is in our veins,” yet we emerged from that catastrophe to build a flourishing state with great gifts to offer the world. “Israel enables us to bear the agony of Auschwitz without radical despair, to sense a ray of God’s radiance in the jungles of history.” Today there is no time for weeping, nor for a galut expressed in vulgar Bat and Bar mitzvah parties, nor a Zionism celebrated with tanks and fighter jets. We live in a world of great danger, politically and environmentally. The prophets gave voice to the silent screams of agony of the voiceless, the powerless, of widows and orphans, and condemned economic exploitation, cruelty, war crimes, and indifference. The Zionism that arose in response to Jewish suffering and sought to bring back Shabbat, peace, and holiness in the land of Israel should today be revived as the very loud voice of justice, compassion and hope of our promised redemption, as we hear in the voices of religious thinkers including Martin Buber, Menachem Froman, Daniel Roth, Rav Shagar, and my father, and in activists such as David Shulman, Arik Ascherman, and Michael Sfard, and organizations such as New Profile, Women in Black, and Ta’ayush. Perhaps the glass that is smashed at the end of a wedding ceremony can be interpreted anew as the new couple’s commitment to Zionism as the eradication of injustice.

We have a state of Jews, but not yet a Jewish state; my father writes, “A life without the study of Torah without the Sabbaths and the festivals, a life without prayer and faith in God, is not Jewish.” At the outset, the Zionist project required a break with piety to negotiate with European political leaders, though the Hebrew Bible may have won far more support for Zionism from Christians than geopolitical machinations. During the first decades of statehood many Israelis shared the conviction that religion was in decline and that Orthodox Judaism would surely disappear within a generation. To live in Israel, to be an Israeli was sufficient; practice of Judaism was irrelevant for far too many. This, of course, is not what happened. But what kind of Judaism has arisen in the Jewish national project?

Rising antisemitism around the world makes the State of Israel essential and the need for justice and peace with Palestinian Arabs also essential.

Ultimately, Israel is a measure of Jewish moral fiber, a demand that “justice prevails over power, that awareness of God penetrates human understanding.” The State of Israel is not a gift to the Jews, my father wrote, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the competence of Judaism.

Susannah Heschel, Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and a Guggenheim Fellow, is the author of Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus; The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany; and Jüdischer Islam: Islam und jüdisch-deutsche Selbstbestimmung.